Friday, September 14, 2007

Some serious swag

Steven Syre's often excellent Boston Capital column in Thursday's Globe discusses the amazing situation Harvard is in. Yet another endowment investment manager has walked away from the job of managing a mere $35 B.

That's right -- 3.5 x 10^10 dollars. Greater than the market capitalization of any biotech firm except for Genentech or Amgen. It apparently now kicks out $2B a year in funds to be spent, which is still more than the market cap of most biotech companies. As Syre puts it, only 8 other U.S. universities have total endowments larger than the growth in Harvard's endowment last year. Boston's fabled Big Dig came in (grossly over budget) at a measly $15 B. If a human genome can really come down to $1K/person, that will be enough to sequence 10 million people -- more than the population of Massachusetts! -- and by then the endowment will probably have grown.

I'm sure Harvard has no end to requests for this money. They apparently already waive undergraduate tuition for families earning less than $60K, and Syre asks whether they will extend that someday to all students. The big project in the future is to build out a new campus in the Allston section of Boston, on land which Harvard secretly bought up back in the 90's. A lot of that campus will be science buildings, which aren't cheap to outfit. Also, it isn't clear whether all these outside gains will eventually boomerang: are Harvard's managers really that good, or have they taken on a lot of risk (and so far been rewarded for it)?

It would be interesting to see the Crimson folks really think big with this. For example, how could some of these funds be used to support un-fundable research projects? How about fully-funding junior faculty until tenure? Could some be used as seed money to start companies to commercialize university research findings?

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